Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

A secret Downing Street report into the aftermath of the 1984-5 miners’ strike says that Margaret Thatcher would have been beaten by Arthur Scargill if she had not intervened personally in the first week of the dispute to establish what amounted to a national police force.

The decisive moment was her instruction to the Home Secretary that chief constables had to stiffen their resolve to stop the movement of flying pickets in order to keep the pits open for working miners.

“If that first battle had been lost, the rest would have been academic” says a review into the lessons of the year-long strike that was written in May 1985 and has been released by the National Archives as part of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet papers for 1985-6.

The report set out the steps being taken to rebuild coal stocks at the power stations to prepare for the possibility of another strike in 1986-7.  Mrs Thatcher wrote in the margin of an early draft that it was “too insipid, too little insight”.

But the report does acknowledge how close her “government came to disaster” because ministers had under-estimated the length of time that the miners could be kept out on strike “even on limited supplementary benefit, by a combination of union solidarity and intimidation”.

Margaret Thatcher was advised by her infamous press secretary Bernard Ingham that there should be “no gloating” by the Conservative government at the end of the year-long miners’ strike.

Her 1985 cabinet papers reveal she regarded the imminent defeat of Arthur Scargill as providing the “best opportunity” for some years to return the coal industry to profitability.

Her optimism reflected the advice she was being given during the closing weeks of the strike: she had received a dramatic forecast of what could be achieved by the so called “MacGregor miracle”. 

If the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was encouraged to cut manpower by 50,000 plus by 1990, coal could become highly competitive and be “winning new business from gas and oil”.

“The immediate human costs would be large, but so would the corresponding gains in competitiveness,” was the upbeat assessment of one of her Downing Street advisers.  

By reducing deep-mined production to 70 million tons a year, the “MacGregor miracle” would enable the NCB to deliver coal to inland power stations for “as much as £10 per ton less than imported coal”.

The Thatcher Foundation is attempting to rewrite the history of her role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and is seeking to refute evidence implicating the former Prime Minister in covering up the true extent of the planned pit closures.

To support its case, the Foundation has challenged the accuracy of my analysis of her 1984 cabinet papers that was broadcast by the BBC and published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

I believed the most important document released by the National Archives in January 2014 was a secret Downing Street document, dated 15 September 1983, which stated that Ian MacGregor “had it in mind over the three years 1983-85 that a further 75 pits would be closed”.

To me this was evidence that Margaret Thatcher misled the country throughout the strike when she and her ministers insisted time and again that MacGregor and the government had only ever considered closing 20 pits.

But the Thatcher Foundation (www.margaretthatcher.org) says the document “established nothing of the kind”: MacGregor did not have a secret hit list of pits for closure and the Prime Minister had not given her approval.

In its analysis of the 1984 cabinet papers, the Foundation has challenged not only my findings but also the conclusions of many other observers, including Labour MPs and the National Union of Mineworkers; they agree with my conclusion that MacGregor’s secret advice in September 1983 that he “had it in mind” to close 75 pits was a highly accurate indication of the restructuring he intended to carry out as chairman of the National Coal Board.

Being asked to apologise for the BBC’s reporting thirty years ago of the 1984-5 pit strike comes as no surprise to the journalists who covered the most divisive industrial dispute of post-war Britain.

To this day miners who took part in the strike accuse the BBC and the rest of the main stream news media of siding with Margaret Thatcher during the year-long struggle in which the South Wales coalfield played a pivotal role.

It was perhaps only to be expected that the bitterness of the National Union of Mineworkers’ defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher should resurface during my lecture hosted by Cardiff University (18.11.2014), as it has during other talks I have given in the once mighty coalfields.

Former miners and their supporters from the wider trade union movement accuse journalists of failing to report the true extent of what they contend was police brutality on the picket line and for doing too little to highlight family hardship and for not recognising that the pit villages were in a fight to the finish to maintain the mining communities.

I have already acknowledged my own soul searching: in the final months of the strike broadcasters did become what I call the cheer leaders for the return to work.

After analysing the contradictions and cover-ups exposed in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers about the 1984-5 pit dispute, the National Union of Mineworkers has called for “a full, transparent and open debate” about her government’s tactics during the strike.

 While secret information about the role of the police and security services continues to be withheld from public scrutiny, the union says the men and families affected by the strike will never be able to secure the full truth about the extent of the government’s involvement.

But the consequences of the action taken by Mrs Thatcher and her ministers were undeniable and the time had come for an explanation as to why her government saw fit to “sustain a vicious and brutal attack on hundreds of thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens”.  

Eye-witness statements from strikers, police reports and parliamentary answers have been used with great effect to give added insight to the revelations contained in the cabinet office records.

When pieced together, along with data collected under Freedom of Information and from documents held by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the NUM has produced a compelling account of secret measures taken by both the government and the National Coal Board during the year-long stoppage.